The great performer Bing Crosby reached the height of his stardom about 80 years ago, but every Christmas season, he makes a triumphant return to American radio and malls and other public places.
American tastes have drastically changed over the decades, yet our Christmas songbook has remained largely the same. With honorable exceptions — most notably Mariah Carey’s 1994 classic, “All I Want for Christmas Is You” — the most-played and most beloved Christmas songs date from the 1930s and the couple of decades after.
Everyone knows Bruce Springsteen’s energetic version of “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town.” He recorded it in 1975, but the song was written and first performed in the 1930s, making it utterly characteristic.
There was a lull in the production of popular Christmas songs in the United States between the 1860s and the ’30s, when the genre exploded and put an indelible imprint on our culture. An annual analysis of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers found that 16 of the 25 most popular Christmas songs last year dated from the 1930s, ’40s or ’50s.
This era was a high point of American popular music generally, when the quality of the lyrics and of the music was exceptional, and we still hear it — and love it — in the most enduring Christmas songs. Nineteen-forty-two gave us the transcendent “White Christmas,” written by Irving Berlin and performed by Crosby. It lifted into the stratosphere, hitting No. 1 on the charts and returning to the charts repeatedly over the next two decades.
The deployment of GIs overseas gave the yearning of “White Christmas” a powerful appeal. The same was true of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” recorded by Crosby a year later. It, too, became an instant hit that entered the Christmas canon.
Different artists successfully performed many of the songs of this era. Written in 1934, “Winter Wonderland” had repeated hit versions, from Guy Lombardo in 1934 to Perry Como in 1947.
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Christmas songs from much earlier were dusted off and made into standards. None is more iconic than “Jingle Bells,” which has done much to define our image of Christmas. Written by James Pierpont in the mid-19th century for Thanksgiving, it became associated with Christmas despite having no references to the holiday.
Bing Crosby made it a sensation with the Andrews Sisters in 1943. Benny Goodman did a hit version in 1935, Glenn Miller in 1941, Les Paul in 1951. Not to mention recordings by Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington and Perry Como, or more recently, Barry Manilow, Gwen Stefani and Barbra Streisand, among many others. The Gemini 6 astronauts performed it in space.
Not all the numbers from this time were particularly serious. A bunch of singers passed on “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” until Gene Autry recorded the instant classic in 1949. Autry also gave us “Frosty the Snowman” (1950) and “Here Comes Santa Claus” (1947).
What, besides the quality of the songs, accounts for the dominance of this era? It was a time prior to the onset of cynicism and irony. So heartfelt sentiments could be expressed unembarrassedly, and they still touch us today. Christmas loomed large in the culture, and the songs reflected it and defined it.
The Christmas of this music is less explicitly religious and more markedly American, a holiday of snowy vistas, of hearth and home, of cheerful sounds and merrymaking, of Santa and his sleigh and of fond memories.
“The Christmas Song,” written in 1945 and recorded most famously by Nat King Cole (although Crosby, Judy Garland and Mel Torme performed it, too), is typical in this regard. It evokes chestnuts on an open fire, Jack Frost, Yuletide carols, turkey and mistletoe, tiny tots bursting with anticipation and of course, Santa and his reindeer.
Providing the cheerful, winsome, moving background music of the holiday is these artists’ gift to all of us. Merry Christmas.